President Obama’s fresh start

After a stirring inaugural address, President Barack Obama immediately starting changing the nation's direction by meeting with advisors to discuss the drawdown of troops from Iraq and by ordering a suspension of military prosecutions at Guant&#0

What happened

President Barack Obama immediately began changing the nation’s direction this week after a stirring inauguration in which the nation’s first African-American president promised to revive American ideals, while cautioning that success at home and abroad would require “a new era of responsibility.” On his first day in the Oval Office, the 44th president plunged into his new responsibilities, meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to discuss the drawdown of troops from Iraq. He also ordered a 120-day suspension of military prosecutions at Guantánamo to allow for a review of Bush administration procedures for trying detainees, and called the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, pledging “active engagement” in the search for peaceful solutions to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

At Obama’s inauguration, nearly 2 million people from around the nation and the world endured low temperatures and congested avenues to mark the historic occasion on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. With the nation mired in an economic crisis and two wars, Obama’s speech was more sober than his sometimes soaring campaign rhetoric. “The challenges we face are real,” Obama said. “They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.” He stressed the virtues of hard work and personal responsibility, promised government that “works,” and said the time had come “to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for too long have strangled our politics.”

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What the editorials said

“We’ve sent our very best to Washington,” said the Chicago Tribune. Obama’s inauguration speech had no timeless phrases, but in “tone and substance, Obama delivered what the country needed to hear from its new president”—a call for responsibility, duty, and respect for the nation’s traditions. Yet there was a majesty to the event that transcended the peaceful transfer of power in a great democracy. “No inauguration has prompted such a swelling of personal pride, such great, huge sobs of joy, as the inauguration of this first African-American president.”

In calling for the nation to embrace personal responsibility, said the New York Post, Obama has started off “on the right track.” Too many Americans from “Main Street to Wall Street” believe our economic salvation lies in “ever-more-elaborate government interventions and enhanced wealth-transfer programs.”

Even before he took office, Obama had warned that the grave economic and foreign-policy problems facing the country would require sacrifice and hard choices, said the Baltimore Sun. That candor, also displayed in his “purposeful” inaugural address, is responsible for the “double-digit increase in his popularity” in recent polls. The new president will need to “mobilize that popularity in support” of his agenda if he is to be successful in Washington.

What the columnists said

Around the world, Obama’s elevation to the White House has caused widespread exhilaration, said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in USA Today. People of color everywhere “are carrying ourselves with a new pride and self-assurance”; if a black man can ascend to the most powerful job in the world, then we blacks are surely equal in God’s eyes, despite all our suffering. At the same time, people of all colors are thrilled that “a new style of U.S. world leadership,” with international cooperation and respect, will replace George Bush’s “arrogant bully-boy unilateralism.”

For Obama to live up to the world’s hopes and his own lofty ambitions, said Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, he will have to make “radical departures from business as usual.” Franklin Roosevelt seized on a similarly fraught moment to rewrite the nation’s social contract. Can Obama deliver the wrenching, systemic change we need? “A national health-care system? A new, clean-energy infrastructure? The nationalization and repair of our banking system? Grand bargains on entitlement and immigration reform?” We need major progress on all of these, and more. Obama has already proved he’s a great politician. I just hope that as president, he proves he’s a “radical.”

Unfortunately, that’s just what he is, said Dick Morris in Today, America is still—barely—a nation of free enterprise. But under Obama we’ll rapidly evolve into a European-style “socialist democracy in which the government dominates the economy, determines private-sector priorities, and offers a vastly expanded range of services to many more people at much higher taxes.” Obama will exploit the economic crisis to ration health care, encourage unionization, and nationalize industries. He’ll match FDR’s grand ambitions, but Obama’s socialist reign will be “less wise and more destructive.”

All that remains to be seen, said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. But Obama’s immediate task is managing “unrealistically high” expectations. He wants voters to “understand that economic recovery won’t come easily or soon.” Yet even as he buys time for his plan, Obama is unlikely to surrender his goals of remaking government and bleeding the toxins from American politics. Like Lincoln and FDR, he’ll be judged by results, not by his rhetoric or his goals. But if Obama succeeds on even half his agenda, he’ll “deserve being compared to those giants.”

What next?

Obama begins with the goodwill not just of Americans but of much of the world, said the Financial Times. That will come in handy given “the international dimension of many of the problems” he confronts, including global recession, climate change, and terrorism. Having delivered “the performance of a born leader” in his inaugural address, the hard part for Obama now lies ahead. Yet despite the era’s daunting challenges, the Obama presidency marks a bold “new start” for the United States—and for the world. All must “seize the moment.”

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